In Calendar Girls, genteel Yorkshire Dales Englishwomen on the far side of 50 pose strategically nude for a wall calendar they produce to raise money for a neighborhood hospital. The premise is real: Enterprising members of a local women’s club made headlines in 1999 with their little pinup scheme, and have since gone on to raise about $1.1 million from their nudie pix. The movie is real-ish. The ladies are pips. And that’s no small accomplishment, considering the cinematic forebears.
”Calendar Girls,” directed by Nigel Cole, is the first export from the light-comedy-steamroller division of the British film industry that avoids, for the most part, the kind of queasy class condescension such hell-bent charmers have relied on since unemployed steel-mill workers shook their groove thangs in ”The Full Monty.” Once again, British people do things that British people are not expected to do; the ladies are related to the coal miner’s son who pirouetted in ”Billy Elliot” and the tweedy widow who harvested dynamite weed in ”Saving Grace” (also directed by Cole).
But led by the ever-game-to-strip Helen Mirren as Chris (based on the real-life Tricia Stewart), who hatches the moneymaking idea, and Julie Walters as Chris’ friend Annie (based on Angela Baker), in whose late husband’s memory the funds are raised, this variant breezes along for a good stretch in easy delight at age-defying liberation, and in the autumnal beauty of the women who cheerily participate. (The cast is a festival for fans of British stage and TV, including Geraldine James, Celia Imrie, the marvelous Penelope Wilton, and ”Veronica Guerin”’s Ciaran Hinds as Chris’ husband.)
While each Yorkshire playmate-of-the-month warmly assesses her own undewy flesh, the movie gives off a happy vibe of appreciation — for the dignity of the real Rylstone lot, the actresses who play them so lovingly, and the simple, flower-bed borders of the story. It’s only when the fictional pinup mates hear the siren call of hustling Hollywood in the last quarter of the film that ”Calendar Girls” condescends. This time the English class structure is safe; it’s stereotypical American glitz that takes a drubbing, in a made-to-please British movie now seeking clothed, U.S. ticket buyers.